Flask Walk, Hampstead.

London by Night (in a Mini)

Car: 1998 Rover Mini Paul Smith LE

Drive: London by Night


I turn at Hyde Park Corner and set off along Piccadilly. I pass The Park Lane Hotel, Green Park, The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason and finally fall under the eternal gaze of the Statue of Selfless Love, Eros (actually, it’s his brother Anteros). 

Across the road is the famous Piccadilly Lights corner, once a patchwork of colourful neon signs, but now a huge, state-of-the-art 4K LED single digital screen. (Did you know this vast electronic billboard has advertised the virtues of Coca-Cola continuously since 1955?)

In some five visits to London, riding Shank’s Pony (walking) or aboard a red Hop-On Hop-Off, I’ve grown fondly familiar with these iconic streets and sights and many more like them. 

But, tonight, I’m going about things way differently. Tonight, I’m behind the wheel of a 20-year-old Mini. 

Yes, yes, yes, I realise driving around central London is not something you would usually do for enjoyment.

It is, we all know, a veritable motoring minefield: snail-paced traffic ‘flow’, cowboy cyclists and bullish bus drivers, infestation of speed and red-light cameras, tangled web of roadworks, punitive congestion and outrageous parking charges, et al.  

London is about as anti-car as it gets. But, is it always like that?

To answer the question, I’ve created a Top Gear-like challenge – drive across town, through the wee hours after midnight, taking in as many landmarks as I can. And see if I enjoy it – or not.

But first, a bit about my wheels, a 1998 Paul Smith LE Rover Mini.

That would be Sir Paul Smith, as in celebrated British fashion designer, who was commissioned by Rover to bless its Mini with his aspirational styling wand. 

Occasion? The model’s 40th anniversary in 1999. 

Sir Paul set to work, bedecking a Mini in his signature styling of 86 multi-coloured stripes, bookended by vibrant lime.

It would become a museum piece, but the commercial spin-off was a limited edition, road-going version based on the Mini Sprite. 

Cosmetic enhancements included bespoke Paul Smith Blue paintwork; black leather interior; magnolia dials; black-and-silver, rose petal 12-inch alloys; lime green details to the interior (viz, inside the glove box), boot and engine bay (rocker cover); and gold Paul Smith bonnet badge. 

Only 1800 were made, the bulk of which were destined for Brit retro-crazy Japan, with just 300 reserved for the UK.

The very car I’m driving is dubbed Betty by its owner, the Small Car Big City (SCBC) group. 

It’s one of a fleet of 10 Rover-era Minis in red, white, blue or green with banks of fog lights, bonnet stripes and Minilite wheels, looking just as if they’ve zoomed off the set of The Italian Job and ready for hire by the likes of you and me. 

It’s after midnight. We venture from North London, down Finchley Road and into the city, and already this is feeling like a good idea – not.

In a few short miles, we’ve been tailgated and hooted; other drivers clearly annoyed by my compliance with the proliferation of 20mph (32km/h) speed and speed camera signs. 

Sitting 20 minutes at a series of road works doesn’t improve my mood. 

We crawl along Shaftsbury Avenue and into Soho, where the pubs are still full to overflowing and there’s much rejoicin’.

I’m a bit wary when three young blokes in leather and denim start walking across the road directly towards the Mini. 

Then, the trio breaks into watermelon slice-sized grins and one calls out, “Hey man, you got da coolest car!” Relieved, I give them the thumbs up and nod back. 

Although my wife was born in Hampstead, North London, she grew up in rural Buckinghamshire before immigrating with her family to Australia at age nine, so we’re lacking any sense of homing instinct. 

Consequently, to find our way we have to key each landmark into the sat nav. It’s a convoluted and inconvenient process, and eliminates any semblance of fluency from our drive. 

But, one by one, we pick the big-ticket items off: Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Cathedral, and Parliament Square. 

A right turn into Horse Guards Road, left into The Mall and ahead lays the Victoria Monument, Buckingham Palace and Constitution Hill. 

And, yes, they do look larger than life from out of something as vertically-challenged as a Mini.

Betty, though, is upholding her part of our date. Her 1275cc four-pot originally delivered 78hp (58kW) and 95Nm – good for a claimed 0-60mph (100km/h) time of around 12 seconds – and in recent times has benefited from a rebuild. 

We’re obviously speed limited everywhere we go, but she shows plenty of zip up to 40mph (65km/h). 

Indeed, her mannerisms bring back mostly rose-tinted memories of my first car, a 15-year-old Morris Mini, I owned briefly in 1978 (a well-used unit with sliding side windows, 1100cc engine, no synchro on 1st gear and costing all of $A300).

Mannerisms such as a flat steering wheel very much bus-like making for a compromised seating position, unassisted steering, a whine from the diff and gearbox, short clutch travel and wooden brakes.

In Betty’s case, ride quality on her 12-inch Yokohama rubber is a little unsettled over poorer road surfaces, but, with a wheel-at-each-corner stance those same ‘Yokies’ offer up surprising agility.

The exhaust note delights with its fruity overtone and we enjoy surprisingly generous head and shoulder room. 

All-round vision is good, thanks to the large glasshouse and small body pillars, and should push come to shove, it’s reassuring (relatively!) for me at least to note the driver-side airbag. 

We point Betty’s bank of driving lights east again, along The Strand, Fleet Street, sweep by St Paul’s Cathedral, St Mary Axe (‘endearingly’ known as the gherkin), Tower of London and, wow, there’s the imposing Tower Bridge to cross, with HMS Belfast moored downstream on the Thames and The Shard towering over Southwark.

It’s like we’ve somehow driven on to a one-to-one scale movie set, playing out in 3D. We scoot back across Tower Bridge and on to Lower Thames Street, following the river all the way down Embankment to Sloane Square and along the moneyed gentrification of Kings Road. 

Even at this time, well after midnight, it’s nigh impossible to find a place to pull over legally or safely to take a photo or savour the moment. 

In the old days, the milko’s horse would still be dozing in its cart’s shafts, but in 21st century London it’s worth remembering that Big Brother and his arsenal of CCTV never sleeps.

The first crack of light might be peeking across the city skyline, but traffic, red lights and roadworks continue to show no mercy. 

By now a tad frustrated as well as weary, it’s time to call it a night and head to our Hampstead hotel. 

In a few hours’ time, we’ll need to return Betty to SCBC, but not before scuttling around leafy North London in the morning light to get some happy snaps along Flask Walk and up/down Haverstock Hill.

So, could I recommend a self-drive, sight-seeing tour around London in a classic car? 

I would, but only to someone like me, a tragic that loves this great city unconditionally.    


1998 Rover Mini Paul Smith LE

Basic price: £10,225 (new)

Engine: 1275cc OHV inline 4-cyl

Power: 58kW @ 6000 rpm

Torque: 95Nm @ 3000 rpm

Transmission: 4-spd manual

Weight: 715kg

Drive: Front-wheel

0-100km/h: 12.2 secs


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